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Major Union Victory for Rite Aid Workers Offers Roadmap for Labor Movement

Workers get affordable health care, protections against outsourcing, and wage increases -- a success model in a very tough environment for unionization.
 
 
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On Sunday, 500 Rite Aid workers at the company’s massive Southwest Distribution Center in Lancaster, California signed a three-year tentative agreement with the management of Rite Aid. The contract was a strong one, providing affordable health care, protections against jobs being outsourced to subcontractors (a common practice in the warehousing industry), job safety requirements, and most stunningly, wage increases in each of the next three years. While many unions are making concessions to keep companies open, the Longshoremen Union was actually able to win a wage increase – an extraordinarily rare feat.

“Helping workers win a union contract today usually requires a long struggle, a comprehensive campaign on the outside and strong leadership and rank and file action on the inside, in order to overcome the vicious anti-union attacks by employers, but victories are still possible as the Rite Aid Campaign shows” says ILWU Spokesman Craig Merrilees. “It takes an incredible amount of perseverance, determination and creativity to win, but we can do it. “

The victory is a testament to the resolve of the workers and organizers -- it's a success five years in the making. It reveals how tough the environment for rehabilitating the labor movement is, but also how it is still possible to win through creative, direct action.

“We’re excited about winning this victory, even if it took longer than it should have” said Carlos “Chico” Rubio, a 10-year warehouse worker who was on the union bargaining committee. Unlike many unions that do win a good contract, the union was quick not to praise the boss for agreeing to a contract, but to point out instead that the process was a long and costly one. Workers decided to first start organizing a union in March of 2006 and hoped to have a new contract within several months, not five years.

Rite Aid management responded with the typical toolbox of anti-union tactics. They hired a team of expensive union busters to hold anti-union intimidation sessions and captive audience meetings. They threatened to fire workers if they supported the union and even fired two workers for wanting to a join a union. They asked a delay of over 18 months from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on scheduling a vote so that they could have more time to run intimidation sessions to make workers wary of joining a union. Finally after two years of organizing and despite massive anti-union attacks, workers voted to join a union 283 to 261 in an NLRB supervised election in June of 2008.

Then when Rite Aid workers finally won a union election, Rite Aid engaged in bad faith bargaining known as “surface bargaining” for over a year before finally bargaining with workers.

“Rite Aid made this process much more difficult on workers and families than it needed to” said ILWU International Vice President Ray Familathe, who helped workers reach their May 1 settlement. Workers though did not give up; they organized a tough and dogged campaign to counter the anti-union efforts of Rite Aid management.

Using a creative campaign Rite Aid workers were able to force management to sit down at the table and bargain with them. Workers started by attending yearly stockholder meetings and opening lines of communications with stockholders and board members. They released detailed reports about how much money the union busting efforts of Rite Aid was costing the company. Workers were able to persuade some stockholders to put pressure on Rite Aid to negotiate a fair and equitable contract.

Likewise, they used their leverage against Rite Aid by expanding the fight across various unions and the country. They formed a coalition of nationwide Rite Aid workers from various unions including UFCW, SEIU, and Teamsters who coordinated their strategy. Workers reached out to powerful community allies with groups like United Students against Sweatshops and Jobs with Justice. They held protests in nearly 50 cities across the country against Rite Aid and promised to apply more heat if Rite Aid didn’t settle the contract dispute in California.

Most importantly, the workers union had a strong presence within the distribution center in Lancaster, California. Workers even engaged in “work to rule,” where they purposely slowed down movement in the distribution center in order to put pressure on the company to settle a contract. Even last year, 75 workers walked off the job for a day in Lancaster, California to protest Rite Aid’s lack of good faith bargaining.

Finally, when negotiations seemed to be breaking down at the last second, they launched a “pinpoint” boycott campaign at two Rite Aid workers at two Rite Aid Stores in San Pedro, California on April 1, 2011. They persuaded hundreds of seniors to switch their prescriptions to other pharmacies. The threat of a larger boycott spreading forced Rite Aid to finally settle the contract a month later.

The feat that the Longshoremen’s Union (ILWU) achieved is a rare one in the labor movement. Nearly half of all union drives result in defeats for workers trying to organize a contract. Less than half of the workers who do get a contract are able to get one within the first year. Often failure to reach a contract in the first year can kill a union all together. Overall, fewer than 1 in 6 organizing drives ever results in a union contract for workers in the workplace.

Many unions have now negotiated card checks agreements, wherein the union agrees to weaker, concessionary contracts ahead of time in exchange for the right to organize a workplace without the type of brutal interference from the employer. While these types of agreements can often result in contracts for workers, they are weak contracts – the type of contracts that ultimately the employer wants. It gives all the power to the boss in terms of what type of contract to give workers and very little to the workers. The ILWU campaign at Rite Aid shows that it is still possible for unions to win good first contracts.

Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who writes for Campaign for America's Future. He previously worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE).
 
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